Although the professional football season officially ends on Super Bowl Sunday, all professional football fans know that the action heats up again a month later around mid-February. That's when players who have not been re- signed by their teams are available for free agency. This means they can negotiate a new contract with any team in the league.

Free agency creates a feeding frenzy in which teams bid up the salaries of valuable players to astronomical levels. Teams use free agency to fill critical gaps in their offensive or defensive lineups as well as off-load high-priced, under- performing players. The team's goal is to reposition themselves to win next year's championship ring.

During the past 12 months, e-commerce vendors have been prowling the free agent ranks, searching for technology that can bolster their position in the fast-growing e-business marketplace. Lately, their prime recruiting target has been business intelligence vendors, especially long-neglected data mining vendors whose statistical algorithms can improve the accuracy and effectiveness of e-marketing, e-merchandising and Web personalization strategies.

We've recently witnessed a string of acquisitions and strategic partnerships among e-commerce and business intelligence vendors. For example, Vignette, a leading provider of e-business application servers, recently announced it is acquiring DataSage, which provides analytical tools to support large-scale, e-marketing efforts. BroadVision, which competes with Vignette, has formed partnerships with Broadbase and E.piphany, both of which provide analytical tools for e-business. Accrue acquired NeoVista, NetPerceptions purchased KD1 and Macromedia acquired Andromedia. In addition, large vendors such as Microsoft, IBM, MicroStrategy and NCR are bringing together far-flung operational and analytical product lines to deliver sophisticated e-marketing and personalization capabilities.

Three Benefits

As free agents, business intelligence vendors have a lot to offer e-commerce firms. First, business intelligence vendors provide an information infrastructure that enables companies to capture and analyze data about their e-business operations. Business intelligence vendors deliver robust reporting and analysis capabilities built on top of a data warehousing foundation that integrates data from multiple operational sources. This analytic infrastructure enables companies to constantly assess the effectiveness of their e-business strategies and make course corrections as needed.

Many companies today are driving "blind" when it comes to e-business. Companies have been so fearful of being "Amazoned" or so eager to reap the heady stock valuations currently enjoyed by dot-com firms that they have neglected to lay down an information infrastructure that can help them understand whether their Web sites are having the desired impact on customers. In addition, many companies haven't designed their sites to deliver high levels of reliability and availability under peak loads.

Second, business intelligence provides the basis for customer intelligence. The problem with most e-commerce technologies today is that they don't provide a 360-degree view of the customer. Consequently, personalization and e-marketing strategies fall short of the mark and oftentimes backfire completely. There's nothing more annoying to a prospect or customer than having to click through irrelevant coupons or offers or get stuck in a "customized" Web navigation path that makes it harder for you to find what you're looking for. Annoyed customers vanish in a click.

A customer intelligence infrastructure puts the "person" back into personalization and e-marketing campaigns, enabling companies to establish profitable relationships with customers. For example, a company can apply statistical algorithms to its customer data warehouse or a third-party consumer database to determine the propensity of customers or prospects to take a particular action, such as purchase a product, respond to an offer, delve into a topic or click on an ad. Companies can use these scores to segment customers or develop interaction rules that drive e-marketing campaigns or deep personalization strategies.

Third, business intelligence technologies are required to deliver customized content in a multi-channel environment. For example, when a new prospect contacts the company through the Web, call center or other channel, the appropriate customer interaction engine executes a series of processes to deliver customized content tailored to the individual user. Specifically, the interaction engine queries a high-performance database (i.e., operational data store) to look up the user's propensity rating or other key attribute. It then applies the most current marketing or personalization rules to the customer record to determine which content to display to the user. The content could be a call center script, an ATM coupon, a wireless phone message, a Web banner ad or content for a Web frame.

A customer intelligence infrastructure hooked into a real-time interaction engine enables companies for the first time to realistically treat customers and prospects as individuals with unique tastes and interests instead of electronic bits to be processed. This type of real-time, customer-centric interaction is what many pundits are calling electronic customer relationship management (e-CRM).

The beauty of e- CRM built on a robust customer intelligence framework is that it helps companies close the loop between analysis and action, and deliver customized content and messages across any channel ­ Web, e-mail, call center, pager, phone, branch office. On the back end, the infrastructure collects information about customer interactions from all the channels and feeds this intelligence back into the planning phase. This allows companies to continually refine their go-to-market or go-to-customer strategies.

The upshot is that e-CRM helps companies understand who their best customers are and which prospects exhibit similar characteristics to those profitable customers. It then helps companies turn this knowledge into action by deploying campaigns and personalization strategies that increase revenues, foster customer loyalty and increase customer lifetime value.

It is no wonder that business intelligence free agents are commanding such high value in the market right now. Business intelligence technologies enable companies to create a 360-degree view of customers and leverage this information in proactive e-CRM initiatives.

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